Recent longshore labor scandals serve as the takeoff point for a flight into fictionalized violence concerning the terroristic rule of a dock union over its coarse and rough, but subdued, members. “On the Waterfront” is packed with strongarm dramatics that bespeak impressive business down the line.
Budd Schulberg’s script is based on his own original which in turn was “suggested” by the Malcolm Johnson articles for Scripps-Howard. It’s a rousing scenario that Schulberg fashioned, with strong accent on murder and mayhem somewhat reminiscent of the picturized gangsterism of the 1920’s (per early James Cagney). Schulberg greatly enhanced the basic story line with expertly-turned, colorful and incisive dialog.
Under Elia Kazan’s direction, Marlon Brando puts on a spectacular show, giving a fascinating, multi-faceted performance as the uneducated dock walloper and former pug, who is basically a softie with a special affection for his rooftop covey of pigeons and a neighborhood girl back from school.
Kazan does a penetrating job of staging the fireworks and the interspersing tender meetings between Brando and the girl. Latter is Eva Marie Saint, a newcomer to films who has appeared in television and the legiter, “Trip to Bountiful.” Miss Saint, in sharp contrast with the robust people and settings of “Waterfront,” is fresh and delicate but with enough spirit to escape listlessness in her characterization.
Sam Spiegel’s production was lensed on location in the Hoboken, N.J., area and, it appears, much of the camera turning was done in the blue-gray early morning. This gives the pic a quality of chilly realism and an apt backdrop for the story telling. No mention of Hoboken is made in the film.
Story opens with Brando unwittingly setting the trap for the murder of a longshoreman who refuses to abide by the “deaf and dumb” code of the waterfront. The victim is hurled from a rooftop because he addressed himself to an investigating crime commission.
Lee J. Cobb is all-powerful as the one-man boss of the docks. He looks and plays the part harshly, arrogantly and with authority. Another fine job is executed by Karl Malden as the local Catholic priest who is outraged to the point that he spurs the revolt against Cobb’s dictatorship.
Rod Stelger, also from tv, was a good choice as Brando’s brother for both incline toward the hesitant manner of speech that has been especially identified with Brando. Steiger is Cobb’s “educated” lieutenant who is murdered when he fails to prevent Brando from blabbing to the crime probers. It’s the shot of Steiger pinned to a wall with a grappling hook that is particularly suggestive of the stark meller stuff of a past era. Pat Henning, Leif Erickson and James Westerfield in less prominent assignments behave competently.
A part of “Waterfront” looks designed for grandstand cheers. This is the climax where Brando, although beaten almost to unconsciousness, manages to rise and lead the longshoremen to a pier job that means the end of Cobb’s cutthroat reign. This is lacking in conviction. And unclear is why Cobb, having been identified as a murderer, is not immediately brought to book.
Cast in “Waterfront” is as burly a lot as likely to be encountered outside Stillman’s Gym. Tony Galento, Tami Maureillo and Abe Simon are among the heavies.
Camera work (Boris Kaufman) and editing (Gene Milford) rate special mentions for some unusally effective pictorial effects. Under Kazan’s megging, of course. Notable is the curtain-raising rooftop slaying and the close-ups of Brando and, alternately, Miss Marie in hushed tete-a-tetes. The one-to-the-other panning achieves eloquent intimacy.
Leonard Bernstein’s music score at a couple of points pounds its way into the foreground but mostly complements the screen action well enough. Lighting is exceptionally good.
1954: Best Motion Picture (Sam Spiegel, Producer), Actor (Marlon Brando), Writing (Story and Screenplay) Budd Schulberg, Actress in a Supporting Role (Eva Marie Saint), Art Direction (Black-and-White) Richard Day, Cinematography (Black-and-White) Boris Kaufman, Directing (Elia Kazan), Film Editing (Gene Milford)
Nominations: Actor in a Supporting Role (Lee J. Cobb), Actor in a Supporting Role (Karl Malden), Actor in a Supporting Role (Rod Steiger), Music (Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture) Leonard Bernstein